Law is the system of rules and procedures that governs the behavior of a community or group. It can be a formal document or a set of informal customs, with rules enforced by officials, such as police officers or judges. Law is a central element of most modern societies, whether they realize it or not. It affects our daily lives in many ways, and shapes politics, economics, history and society in countless ways. Law can also refer to a specific field of study, such as legal studies or law enforcement.
The precise definition of law has evolved over time. Some scholars use the term to mean a body of statutes, codes and regulations created by legislative bodies and enacted by executive authority. Others include the law of a nation, state or province as the totality of all enforceable laws within the territory under the control of a government. The law can also be defined as the system of judicial rulings on individual cases and other disputes, including contract law, criminal law and civil law.
Legal systems vary widely from country to country, and serve different purposes. The major functions of the law are to (1) keep peace and maintain status quo, (2) protect people’s rights against tyranny or oppression, (3) provide orderly social change, (4) protect minorities against majorities, and (5) promote justice. Some legal systems serve these functions more effectively than others.
A basic element of any legal system is a body of statutes, codes and other regulatory instruments that define the actions and rights of citizens. These can be created by a legislature, resulting in statutory law; by an executive agency or department, creating administrative or regulatory law; or by the courts through judicial decisions. Court decisions are often binding on lower courts through the doctrine of stare decisis, or “law of precedent.”
Other elements of a legal system are a jury trial and the right to representation by a lawyer. A lawyer is a person who practices law, or a person who has been trained in the legal profession and has passed the bar examination of his or her jurisdiction.
A lawyer’s job is to represent his or her client in a lawsuit, or to argue before a judge or jury on behalf of a defendant in a criminal case. A lawyer may be assigned to a particular case by the court, or the judge or jury in a given case may request that a particular attorney be present. The judge or jury may also decide to hear the case in chambers, without a public audience, or on an expedited basis (with shorter hearings and less detailed evidence). Jurisdiction is the legal power of a court to decide a particular case. Some issues have concurrent jurisdiction, meaning that the case can be heard by both state and federal courts. In the United States, Supreme Court decisions are binding on all federal courts. Other countries have similar legal systems.